Let’s fess up. We’ve all overindulged in something. That third piled plate at the Chinese buffet. That entire hour of mindless channel surfing. That cutting comment at the returns and exchanges counter.

If we’re willing to learn from our own mistakes, we can think of those slips as instances when we showed ourselves what temperance is not.

Temperance, the fourth cardinal virtue, is the one that “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion.”

That’s from the Catechism, No. 1809, and it succinctly captures the essence of the virtue: To temper a natural urge or inclination is to moderate it — or, better yet, to keep it under control so it doesn’t take control of us.

“In the Christian life, we use and enjoy the things God gave us, but we use them recognizing them as gifts and blessings from God,” explains Franciscan Father Andrew Apostoli, the popular retreat leader and EWTN host. “We do not seek them for themselves because then we become prisoners of things like food, drink, pleasures of any kind. The virtue of temperance brings a kind of balance into the Christian’s life.”

The great Catholic thinker G.K.- Chesterton knew this well. Chesterton expert John “Chuck” Chalberg, a history professor who portrays the famous Catholic Englishman on EWTN’s “The Apostle of Common Sense” and in one-man performances nationwide (see historyonstage.com), recites what he calls Chesterton’s best aphorism on the virtue and its application.

“We should thank God for beer and burgundy,” Chesterton said, “by not drinking too much of them.”

“That’s the classic,” says Chalberg, who points out that the only times Chesterton came to America were when Prohibition was in effect. The Brit thought the outlawing of alcohol absurd — an intemperate practice of trying to regulate ordinary people’s lives.

“He made the distinction between taking moral positions and being moralistic about them,” Chalberg explains. “Last thing Chesterton was was holier-than-thou. That’s why he had a terrible problem with American Puritanism, the notion that things like drink and sex are in themselves evil.”

“They’re gifts from God to be used,” adds Chalberg, “but to be used wisely.”

TV as Teacher?

Families need to live temperately and teach children moderation early on, Father Apostoli says. The priest believes such instruction is particularly important in a society as narcissistic and intent on personal gratification as ours is today.

A good place to begin forming children in this area, he says, is by making it clear that they can’t have everything they see on the playground or in TV commercials.

In fact, he would take television training even further.

“TV can be the first line of battle for those trying to maintain a good Christian home,” says Father Apostoli. “You’re opening airwaves to possibly bring in the spirit of the world.”

More than that, he says, even the family that only allows good programming can be tempted by the tube to neglect their duties to the household, to one another and to God: It’s hard to pray when a broadcast is blaring.

In Cumming, Ga., Mark and Cindy Cassandra demonstrate temperance to their five boys and six girls, ages 6 to 22, by taming the TV.

“We really control the television,” says Cindy. “The children grow up not being able to come in and sit down in front of the TV and turn it on. They get used to asking if they can watch something.”

The usual fare is a clean movie or a sporting event. But even when the programming is safe, the commercials can call into question the family’s standards. That’s why the Cassandras “pretty much stay away from TV,” Cindy says.

Then, too, they’re well aware that TV is only one front in the war on moderation. When they go out, earsplitting music seems to blast from every other car. Cell phones seem to have become a part of the human anatomy. And those who aren’t regularly e-mailing, instant-messaging or otherwise networking on the Internet may as well be living on another planet.

In short, overindulgence is everywhere.

The Cassandras do their best to monitor both the amount of time spent with information-and-entertainment gadgets and the content they purvey. Cindy recalls one time when one of her sons came home with a CD a friend had loaned him. Its lyrics were not edifying.

“We had to explain that what goes into his ears affects his soul,” says Cindy. “We can’t allow that kind of music just because a friend listens to it.”

And then there’s the prime upside of tempering kids’ natural inclination to try every new thing and keep up with the crowd: the time available for genuinely uplifting activities. Instead of playing questionable video games, the Cassandra children learned to play the piano.

Hankering vs. Hungering

Father Apostoli says one of the most common sources of struggle for those seeking to practice temperance is food. His advice is so simple yet profound, it could have come from St. Francis himself: Don’t live to eat. Eat to live.

“When things are sought without moderation and without any restraint or boundaries, they will become obstacles to one’s spiritual growth,” says Father Apostoli. Applying this principle to the temptation to gluttony, he says we can learn moderation not only by refusing to take heaping helpings but also by sometimes going the extra mile — as when we deny ourselves dessert during Lent, for example.

In the Cassandra household, children learn dessert is not a daily indulgence but an occasional special treat. Mom Cindy recalls how this moderating discipline paid off during Lent as one daughter, a junior in high school, chose to give up all desserts. “There were nights all the kids were eating ice cream, but for her, no problem,” says Cindy. “She did it without a sad face.”

It is by such simple steps, says Father Apostoli, that the virtue of temperance expands into a character trait — one that will serve the youngster well for a lifetime.

“Once children learn to be moderate and balanced with legitimate pleasures, they build up a strength to resist those pleasures that are illegitimate and that would be sinful,” he says.

Enter chastity. This begins with modesty — temperance in fashion sense, if you will.

“We really work on how the kids dress,” says Cindy Cassandra. “With today’s society, it’s really difficult. When we’re buying clothes, we point that out. We ask, ‘Would you be all right wearing that to Church?’”

Sometimes it’s an uphill battle, but Cindy says consistency usually carries the day. “You don’t waffle what you believe and they learn from that,” she says. “They respect what we ask of them.”

The recent proms for two of the girls in Catholic school proved the point. Mom and dad discussed prom dresses with them. The girls got clear guidance.

“I sent them out to buy their dresses and both also purchased a shawl to cover up,” says their pleased mom.

Was the girls’ unsupervised decision a sign of their growing strong and mature in temperance? The Cassandras can’t be certain just yet but they are full of hope.

And why not? One good virtue deserves another.

Staff writer Joseph

Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.